Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The Beguiling of Merlin

 Despite having lived in the North-West of England for thirty years, I made my first-ever visit to Port Sunlight only the other day.  And what a spacious and architecturally inspiring village it is, though Morris, I imagine, would have scornfully seen it as merely an instance of benevolent capitalist paternalism, an attempt to buy off genuine workers’ democracy by throwing them a few ‘palliative’ crumbs.

In the middle of Port Sunlight is the wonderful Lady Lever Art Gallery, with its fine collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, including Edward Burne-Jones’s ‘The Beguiling of Merlin’ (c.1877).  Looking at that painting, in which the elderly and entrapped Merlin glares dolefully out at the young woman Nimue, who has seduced the secrets of his magic out of him and turned his own powers against him, I found myself instantly thinking of Old Hammond’s words to William Guest in News from Nowhere: ‘the inexplicable desire that comes on a man of riper years to be the all-in-all to some one woman, whose ordinary human kindness and human beauty he has idealized into superhuman perfection, and made the one object of his desire’ (ch. IX).

Those words in turn look proleptically forward in the book to Guest’s own fixation on Ellen in the last third of the text, as he, Dick and Clara travel up the Thames to Kelmscott; ‘riper’ is certainly the correct adjective for Guest in relation to the young Nowherian, since he is no less than 36 years older than she is (56 to her 20).  May it not be, then, if we bear the Burne-Jones painting in mind, that Ellen is ‘beguiling’ her Victorian visitor, draining his magical powers  (which in this case means his firsthand knowledge of history) from him, to the point where - having achieved the upper hand over his besotted self - she can then so painfully expel him from paradise in the Kelmscott church feast at the close of the book?  So whether ‘The Beguiling of Merlin’ was or was not any sort of direct influence on Morris’s conception of the Guest-Ellen relationship, it vividly sketches out a sexual and narrative model that can sensitise us to darker possibilities in the love interest at the very heart of his utopia. 

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

William Morris's Tennyson Obituary

One of the founding impulses of this blog way back in 2007 was a sense of the unfinishedness of Morris’s oeuvre, both literary and political – the former entailing further creative writing on our part, the latter new projects of social involvement.  However, I’ve perhaps lost sight of that literary unfinishedness in recent years, so a minor example comes opportunely to hand to remind me of it. On 7 October 1892, the day after Tennyson’s death, Morris wrote to George Bernard Shaw: ‘Just think if I were still Editor of Commonweal I should have had to write something about Tennyson.  As it is I needn’t and flatly, as you have guessed, I won’t’ (Kelvin, III, 453).

Well, he won’t, but we could.  Would it be worth an effort at drafting this Tennyson obituary that never happened?  We have the three articles on Tennyson which William Fulford contributed to the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine in 1856 to give us a pretty good idea of what Morris and his set made of his verse in those early days.  But what of the later, socialist Morris?  Can we speculate and set out at some length how his views of Tennyson might have developed?  And if we accept Norman Kelvin’s editorial suggestion here that ‘Apparently Shaw wanted to interview Morris about Tennyson’, we might even cast our creative writing project into that particular format, which will require us to ventriloquise the nimble wit of Shaw’s questions as well as the ponderous content of Morris’s answers.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Gestures in Literature

In what has over the years become my favourite Roland Barthes book, his theoretical autobiography Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975), the great French critic notes his fondness for a phrase from Charles Baudelaire: ‘la vérité emphatique du geste dans les grandes circonstances de la vie’ (p.121).  It is a formulation that might make us tot up some of the most memorable gestures across Morris’s literary works, from Guenevere’s ‘passionate twisting’ in the early poetry onwards.

I’m particularly taken by Ellen’s unusual gesture as she stands on a bank of the upper Thames in News from Nowhere, ‘one hand laid on her bosom, the other arm stretched downward and clenched in its earnestness’ (ch.XXIX); for that clenched fist is a powerful statement of how much reforming political passion there may still be at work in Morris’s apparently settled utopia.

But the most spectacular gesture – or rather, series of gestures – in all Morris must surely be that enacted by Ralph in The Well at the World’s End, which thoroughly lives up to what Barthes terms an ‘excès de pose’: ‘he drew himself up, and his brows were knit a little ... He half drew the sword from the scabbard, and sent it back rattling ... he upreared his head and looked around him on this and that one of the warriors of the aliens, and he sniffed the air into his nostrils as he stood alone amongst them, and set his foot down hard on the floor of the King’s hall, and his armour rattled upon him’ (Bk 4, ch.9).  'Excès de pose' indeed: I shall have to try this myself next time I attend a William Morris Society AGM.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Grenfell Tower Inferno

As I have had occasion to note in this blog before, towers turn up in both Morris’s early poetry and late romances: the former offers us ‘The Tune of the Seven Towers’ and ‘The Little Tower’, while the latter contains, for instance, the evil Baron of the Seven Towers who oppresses the citizens of Whatham in the unfinished ‘Kilian of the Closes’.  However, towers do not crop up in his utopia News from Nowhere, which is a notably ‘horizontal’ work compared to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, the book that inspired it (albeit by intense dissent).  William Guest sees a good deal of Nowhere from a boat on the river Thames, and you can’t get much more horizontal than that; while Julian West, in Bellamy’s volume, is very early on sitting high up on Dr Leete’s belvedere taking an aerial survey of the new Boston.

So if there are fires in Morris’s utopia, as I suppose there may be from time to time, just as there are other mishaps, they will not be of the alarmingly ‘vertical’ nature of the Grenfell Tower fire that we have just witnessed in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  The literary concept that keeps being trotted out by the mainstream media for this appalling event is ‘tragedy’, but this notion, as Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton have shown, brings a whole ideology along with it: of fatalism, of inevitability, even of nobility in suffering. ‘Tragedy’ in this context is a deeply passive and depoliticising concept; it thus fits in well enough with what I believe to be the media and authorities’ early efforts to downplay the number of dead in this event, which will surely exceed one hundred.

For the Grenfell Tower inferno is political through and through; Labour MP David Lammy is absolutely right to say that this is ‘corporate manslaughter’ and that there must be resulting arrests and prison sentences.  The avoidable deaths of so many poor people in the richest borough of one of the richest cities on earth, after the whole sickening history of ignored warnings, cheap and dangerous building materials (the cladding), and failures to update planning and safety laws, is a vivid index of the neoliberal England of austerity, inequality and deregulation which both Tory and New Labour governments have bequeathed to us.  ‘Another emblem there!’, if we may borrow that memorable phrase from W.B. Yeats’s ‘Wild Swans at Coole’ – just as Theresa May’s aloof and sanitised visit to the disaster scene is an emblem of her crippled psyche in contrast to the human warmth which Jeremy Corbyn was able to communicate during his.  No doubts there, then, about who the real British Prime Minister should now be.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Gestures in Life

In an earlier entry in this blog I gave some thought to the issue of gestures in utopia (15 April 2010); but of course William Morris himself had many memorable gestures of his own, and his physical presence is vividly recorded in memoirs by contemporaries: Morris plucking single hairs out of his bread in exasperation, or rhythmically rocking backwards and forwards as he spoke in the Kelmscott Coach House, and so on.

 But Val Prinsep in 1857 recorded a Morrisian gesture that I don’t remember being mentioned in the standard biographies.  As the young Morris read out his poems in a sing-song chant to friends in Oxford, ‘all the time, he was jiggling about nervously with his watch chain ... the poet at the table reading and ever fidgetting with his watch chain’.  And Edward Burne-Jones confirms this recurrent behaviour; for No. 3 in the sequence of his satirical Topsy Cartoons ‘represents Topsy in his usual action with his watch chain’ (Memorials, pp.162, 165).

It is a curious image we get here, then, as the man whose utopia so beautifully asserts the benefits of doing things slowly, comes across as a figure almost akin to Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit who compulsively consults his watch and mutters ‘I’m late, I’m late!’